Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Coffee Poem Winners

My American University Coffee Mug

I have long known that an individual’s response to poetry is very subjective. That is one reason that “schools” of poetry sometimes have fierce arguments about what is good poetry and what is not. It is also why a poet like Henry Wadsworth Longfellow can be highly regarded by his own generation, then fall out of favor, and then become more popular again. It is why, although some poetry journals disdain rhyme and regular meter, others specialize in publishing sonnets, villanelles and other formal verse.

I asked Mary Jo Balistreri and Karla Linn Merrifield, whose poems were used as examples of “coffee” poems in the previous post, to judge the February Poetry Challenge separately. One of the judges identified first and second place poems; the other picked first, second and third place work – but not one poem was on both lists. As a result we have two poems, tied for first place, to share this month.

Balistreri picked “Barista:” by Caroline Johnson as winner.


Henry says the Lakota called it black medicine.
I can imagine Black Elk drinking from a gourd,
huddling around a teepee with a peace pipe
sometime in July when the cherries are ripe.

Henry looks at each customer with green eyes
full of gourmet hot chocolate and caramel mochas. 
He moves his arms across the espresso machine,
steaming milk, whirling words with a smile.

His eyes sail through you like a windjammer,
as if you’ve been caught by a cool island breeze.
He hums as he scrubs stubborn stains off of soup
kettles, stocks the pantry, or pours steamed milk.

He shakes his head and his braids rustle round him. 
I work the register, exchanging money for drinks.
The smell of French Roast perfumes the air.
You can hear the crackle of beans as they grind.

The line is long:  a mother with a stroller, a boy
in a wheelchair, two ladies with Gucci bags. 
Two wealthy ladies talk of sconces in their new
living rooms, a young couple orders hot chocolate,

and a lone man with dark black hair stands at the back
of the café wearing a T-shirt, his arms exposed to reveal
a green tattoo:  “I-R-A-Q” neatly printed across his skin.
Henry talks to them all as they huddle around, waiting

for their black medicine.  Henry makes everything look easy. 
He can do three things at once.  Yet Henry’s not easy. 
He’s just trying to figure life out before it passes him by.

~ Caroline Johnson

In discussing why she picked this poem, Balistreri said

Barista” is as much about Henry as it is about coffee, as much as it is about two distinct groups of society. The black medicine winds through the entire poem, from Black Elk huddled around his teepee with a peace pipe to the customers that huddle around waiting--and the contrast is clear.  Henry's eyes might really be green, but green is also a sign of envy as he watches these people with money to spend on coffee, while he works behind the bar. "His eyes sail through you like a windjammer," and he gives his customers individual attention as well as the "feeling of a cool island breeze."

The poet gives an accurate and poetic description of a cafe--I smell the French roast, see him wiping the machines, hear the crackle of the grinding bean. The small portraits of the long line are interesting, too—a microcosm of society. IRAQ is another symbol of gaps in our culture.The ending of the poem makes the reader ponder other baristas she's seen--and people in general. Our outward appearance often has little to do with what's going on. The last line keeps the poem open--we don't know what he's trying to figure out either. 
Craft: The poem has seven stanzas, all except the ultimate one with 4 lines. Good diction, and wonderful use of rhyme, slant rhyme, assonance and alliteration. I like the way the stanzas give a firm container for Henry who is most likely firmly contained. He doesn't give much of himself away. Form and content complement each other.

Caroline Johnson enjoys watching movies with her father, especially James Bond movies.  She has published two poetry chapbooks, Where the Street Ends and My Mother’s Artwork.  In 2012 she won 1st Place in the Chicago Tribune’s Printers Row Poetry Contest. She has published poetry and fiction in DuPage Valley Review, Prairie Light Review, Encore, Chicago Tribune, New Scriptor, The Quotable, Uproot, Rambunctious Review, and others.  She teaches community college English in the Chicago area, and leads poetry workshops for veterans.  Currently president of Poets and Patrons of Chicago, she has a blog at  

Copyright on this poem is retained by Caroline Johnson.

Unfortunately the way this blog is laid out, it will not accept lines as long as those in the winning poem, so I had to use indentation.

An Early Morning Hymn

The air is heavy, still and silent, disturbed only by the rasp of the cup
in protest of being pulled  from its cabinet slumber
as the dawn chorus of warblers and goldfinches greets the start
      of the new day.

If you listen carefully, you can hear the soft sighs of the coffee pot
      on the countertop
as it whispers “Good Morning” to the dust motes whorling
on an invisible current like the fae Queen’s glamour, or snowflake
      s in Autumn.

As the skies slowly bleed from black to purple to pink, it reminds
      me of a Romanichal spell
being cast, which bids me stay reticent and lend ear, as the day
      slowly awakens
to the strains of an early morning hymn that slowly fades away
      as I savor my last sip.

The charms of the morning dissolve as swiftly as they had
      appeared, and the birds are mute
until the morrow, when the sweet refrains can be heard again
and the runes are restored once more with the divine communion
      of decoction and cream.

~ Christy Cole Quast

Merrifield’s response to “An Early Morning Hymn was “WINNER! On theme.  Lovely language. Narrator’s lofty diction (appropriate to a hymn) sustained throughout. I am charmed.  Great control over form and line, too.” She used fewer words to explain her choice, but her enthusiasm for this poem is clear!

Merrifield remarked separately that “Romanichal” is a “great word.” It is a word which may send some readers to the dictionary – but unless you have a very unusual dictionary, you won’t find it there. Wikipedia explains that the Romanichals belong to a group of Romani (the group that used to be referred to as gypsies) who settled in England in the 16th Century. Sometimes an unusual word detracts from a poem; other times it is just what the poem needs.

Copyright for this poem is retained by Christy Cole Quast.

Christy Cole Quast is an avid reader of the written word, and has a B.A. in English Literature.  She hasn’t written any poetry since college, but has recently dusted off her beloved notebook to jot down some verse here and there, inspired by her 12-year-old daughter who writes poems and short stories “just for fun.”

Congratulations to Caroline and Christy for winning the February Poetry Challenge, and thank you to Mary Jo and Karla Linn for serving as judges. Bios of the judges can be found in the previous post on this blog.

Check back early in March for a new poetry challenge.

© Wilda Morris

Sunday, February 1, 2015

February 2015 Poetry Challenge - A Coffee Poem

When Kind of a Hurricane Press put out a call for coffee-themed poems, I submitted three poems, including this one:

October Morning

It’s been months
since I noticed
                        from my coffee.
This morning, as I set            
the hot cup
                        on the table,
gray ascends
in undisciplined columns,
                        waving, folding,
so dramatic
I expect a genie to emerge.
            I hesitate to drink,
not wanting             
                        to interrupt
the lava lamp patterns,
                         amazed at how long
moist air rises
into dry, heated air.
                                                What will this crisp
cool autumn
                        draw from me?

~ Wilda Morris

I tried to make the layout for this poem reflect the steam rising from my cup.

When Sherri, my oldest daughter, was living with me a couple years ago, we had separate coffee pots. She says I don’t drink coffee. She says I don’t even drink flavored water; I just drink slightly tinted water. I say the coffee she makes doesn’t just crawl out of the cup, it jumps out and takes off through the neighborhood. She is so tied (may I say “addicted”?) to “high octane” coffee that her children once scolded me for saying the word “decaf.” Sherri had told them that "decaf" is a swear word, and they should never say it!

One of my coffee poems was as much about writing poetry as it was about coffee, but it also it certainly reflects my preference for flavored coffee. I’m especially fond of hazelnut, chocolate raspberry, and chocolate cherry, but I want the flavor brewed into the coffee, not added as a syrup. Avid coffee drinkers have their own favorites and their own coffee-drinking routines.

Morning Brews

Poems percolate like coffee
in this woodland hideaway:
French vanilla this morning
or chocolate cherry
to which I add a little sugar,
writing for someone I love;

potent expresso
as I pen lines about evils
reported on television news;

lattés after a porcupine
rattles branches and I watch
it climb a tree.

A doe slips into the clearing,
stands with ears perked,
almost willing, I think,
to listen to my latest poem
and sip cinnamon hazelnut
from my steaming cup.

~ Wilda Morris

For the same call for coffee poems, Karla Linn Merrifield submitted a poem with coffee and love intertwined. Coffee shared between lovers becomes part of their joint story.

Since Today is the First
Full Day of Summer I Envision:

            for Roger M. Weir

a kiss, my husband’s, dewy,
first thing this sultry morning.
one full of steamy promises & coffee,
two day’s whiskers, tongues, a tear.

& more coffee, then another kiss,
our ritual goodbye in the garage
before he motors off into the heat,
errands to run, doctor to see.

& because the first two kisses
of summer were so sublime (must be
the French roast java), I imagine a third –
a trio, trilogy, triptych, trinity kiss –

like a dragonfly’s to still water,
swallow’s to calm air,
the sun’s to his planet Earth,
my man’s to me.

~ Karla Linn Merrifield

Mary Jo Balistreri’s poem is also a poem of relationship. She focuses not on the coffee, but on what is shared by two women over a cup of coffee. They open up to one another, sharing their histories and feelings. They discover they have more in common than they previously realized. “Double Perk” may be the name of an actual coffee shop, or it may be poetic license. At any rate, serves a metaphoric purpose in this poignant poem, as French Roast Java did in the previous one:

Coffee at the Double Perk

Neither of us is prepared for the curve in conversation.
As my friend struggles with words, the story begins
to emerge. It’s as if an aftershock tilts our world.
It was twenty years ago. And it still hurts.

All the time we had mourned privately, got lost
in the questions:
Why our bodies betrayed us
How our boys were dying inside us, quietness
deemed normal because they were small,
with small heart beats
How the doctors were not concerned until it was too late

Fissures crack open. We exchange our boys’ names,
say them softly, almost shyly. Swapping stories, we begin
to interrupt each other, eager to share.
        Andrew comes to me when I’m doing laundry,
              sometimes in the garden.
        Danny visits when I’m making dinner or at the pond.
We both agree our boys like quiet and often come at night.

We walk toward the exit, arms around each other’s waist.
Halfway out the door my friend stops – Were we the dead ones?

The door bangs shut behind us and we start to laugh. The reservoir
we though empty begins to bubble like a fresh water spring.

~ Mary Jo Balistreri

All the poems in this post are from Something’s Brewing, edited by Al J. Huffman and April Salzano (Kind of a Hurricane Press, 2014).  Each poets owns the copyright on her poems.

Looking for a gift for a coffee lover? Package a copy of Something’s Brewing (ordered from Kind of a Hurricane Press) with a pound or two of organic fair-trade coffee. If you can’t purchase it locally, consider ordering from Dean's Beans (or google “organic fair trade coffee” for another dealer). I single out  Dean’s Beans only because my church has an annual fund-raiser during which we sell their coffee. We have found them very nice to work with, and their coffee (especially the hazelnut) is very tasty.

On-Line Coffee Poems (There are many - some good, some not so good. Here are just a few you might want to read):

A Prose Poem, The Morning Coffee by Ron Padgett 
A long narrative poem, Coffee by Richard Brautigan 
A  love poem, The Sun, the Moon and the Starbucks by James Novis 
A somewhat humorous poem with a surprise ending, Better Beans by Nick Usborne 
February Poetry Challenge:

You guessed it! The poetry challenge for February is to write a coffee poem. It may be a poem about coffee: how and where it is grown, how it is processed, decaffeination (no, “decaf” is NOT a swear word!); the senses awakened by a cup of hot (or iced) coffee; or even why you don’t like or drink coffee. But you can also write from a broader definition of what might constitute a coffee poem, as in some of the examples above. Coffee can be a metaphor for something else. But coffee must play a significant role in the poem.

Submit only one poem. The deadline is February 15. Poems submitted after the February 15 deadline will not be considered. There is no charge to enter, so there are no monetary rewards; however winners are published on this blog. Please don’t stray far from “family-friendly” language.

Copyright on each poem is retained by the poet.

Poems published in books or on the Internet (including Facebook and other on-line social networks) are not eligible. If your poem has been published in a print periodical, you may submit it if you retain copyright, but please include publication data.

How to Submit Your Poem:

Send one poem only to wildamorris[at]ameritech[dot]net (substitute the @ sign for “at” and a . for “dot”) . Include a brief bio which can be printed with your poem, if you are a winner this month.

Submission of a poem gives permission for the poem to be posted on the blog if it is a winner, so be sure that you put your name (exactly as you would like it to appear if you do win) at the end of the poem. Poems may be pasted into an email or sent as an attachment. Please do not indent the poem or center it on the page. It helps if you submit the poem in the format used on the blog (Title and poem left-justified; title in bold (not all in capital letters); your name at the bottom of the poem). Also, please do not use spaces instead of commas in the middle of lines. I have no problem with poets using that technique; I sometimes do it myself. However I have difficulty getting the blog to accept and maintain extra spaces.

Poems shorter than 30 lines are generally preferred. Also, if lines are too long, they don’t fit in the blog format and have to be split, so you might be wise to use shorter lines.

© Wilda Morris